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Cold outside, hot under the collar

Tue., Sept. 13, 2005

Word that natural gas bills may rise $16 a month got a chilly reaction from the Clinton and Mary Hammond on Monday.

The married seniors, living on a fixed income, already keep the thermostat turned down to 65 degrees. They cook with gas, heat with gas and until recently warmed their bath water with gas. They pay for it all with cold hard cash.

Avista Corp. on Monday announced its rates for natural gas on the wholesale market were increasing and that the utility plans on passing those higher rates onto customers in Idaho and Washington. From furnace oil to firewood, the story is the same – ready or not, heating prices are rising.

“I think our bill has been as high as $160 a month, before we got an electric water heater,” Clinton Hammond said. “We sit around watching TV with a sweater on.”

At City Service Inc. in Spokane Valley, red-dyed furnace oil was selling for 2.89 a gallon yesterday, $1.09 more than at September’s end 2004. Chris Herron, City Service manager, said Hurricane Katrina has pushed prices upward and created a shortage for diesel fuel, which is basically what furnace oil is.

“There’s some serious supply issues with diesel in Spokane. The major oil companies have us all on tight allocations,” Herron said. “With the hurricane and refineries down, it takes these things months to correct themselves.”

Furnace oil demand is usually brisk in September as residents start filling holding tanks of 150 gallons or more for winter. The 2000 U.S. Census reported 12,000 Spokane County Homes relying on the fuel for heat. This year, customers seem to be doing a lot of price checking, Herron said.

There are assistance programs to keep the heat on in low-income households. Heating loans are available once a season through the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. The assistance, which is funneled through local, community-based nonprofit organizations, provided an average of $350 to qualified households in 2004. Households with an income no greater than 125 percent of the poverty level qualify. A four-person household of four living on $2,016 per month is considered eligible, for example.

Other programs that help with utility bills include Project Share, an assistance fund created by donations from utility ratepayers and matched by utilities, and a state version of the LIHEAP. Information for both is available at local utility companies. Electric and gas companies will also average payments based on use from the prior year and spread the payment evenly over the course of a year.

Struggling ratepayers should contact their utility early and work to get their utilities paid, said Catherine Markson, Avista spokeswoman.

“We offer payment arrangements,” Markson said. “Basically, if you think you’re going to get into trouble with your bill, we’ll help you. The earlier you contact us, the better.”


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